Column: MLB’s Rule Changes Will Enliven A Game That Slowed Over The Past Three Decades

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

Editor’s note: This piece reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the World Baseball Network or its other employees.

For purists, the rules of play for Major League Baseball – the written rules, at least – fall somewhere between the U.S. Constitution and the Ten Commandments in their immutability.

And in 2023, the game will look a little bit different, as Major League Baseball will play with a pitch clock for the first time in history, as well as with 18-inch square bases and rules on the positioning of infielders aimed at eliminating defensive shifts. There will also be a runner on second at the beginning of the 10th inning and all subsequent innings, in hopes of getting regular season games over faster.

But purists shouldn’t get too up in arms over these changes – most of them simply aim to keep the game, which has slowed down significantly, moving at a pace that will keep fans interested.

Recently, I dug up the box score from the first major league game I attended – it was the Montreal Expos against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 9, 1985 at Veterans Stadium. The highlights were the free Richie Ashburn hat (my baseball media colleague Sweeny Murti may or may not be jealous that I’ve held on to it all these years) and a two-run home run by Phils’ outfielder Glenn Wilson, the cheering and fireworks for which woke me from a 700-Level nap in the bottom of the second. I was five years old.

That game, a 4-1 Phillies win Sunday afternoon, was completed in a scant two hours and seventeen minutes, and I don’t think I’ve been to a faster MLB game since. Nowadays, between pitching changes, commercial breaks, a lot of at-bats that result in one of the “three true outcomes,” as well as a general tortoise-like pace of play, sitting down to watch a game is a three-hour commitment. 

And it shouldn’t be.

So in 2023, pitchers will have 15 seconds to deliver to the plate when the bases are empty and 20 seconds when runners are on. They’ll be allowed two “disengagements” – pick-off moves or stepping off the rubber – twice per batter, with further disengagements being ruled a balk. According to MLB, the pitch clock shaved 25 minutes off minor league games last season, and the limit on pick-off attempts led to 26% more steal attempts.

If you are against the pitch clock, I’d simply ask you to go back and watch any regular season game from the mid-1980s. The game moved a lot faster. Batters didn’t step out of the box nearly as much (and this year, they have to be in the box with eight seconds remaining on the pitch clock and can only call time once per at-bat) and pitchers got the ball back, got a sign, and fired. The game moved, as evidenced by the average time of a game – in 1985, the average game time was two hours, 40 minutes. Half of the 2,103 major league games played that year were completed in less time than 2:40. For comparison, in 2021, the average MLB game was completed in 3:11, the longest average game length in baseball history.

At some point this season, a pitch clock violation will undoubtedly change the outcome of a game. It happened in a spring training game on February 25 when the Atlanta Braves, tied 6-6 with the Boston Red Sox, had the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, only to have Cal Conley called out on strikes when he wasn’t ready for a pitch with eight seconds remaining on the pitch clock.

The game ended in a tie.

At a time when baseball, as a form of entertainment, is battling the ever-shrinking attention span of the American viewer combined with an aging fan base, something had to be done. And while it’s certainly controversial to introduce timing into a game that, to this point, has been unbound by temporal constraints, at least the rule changes have fans talking. 

Similarly, a defensive shift used to be something of a rare occurrence, but now that every MLB organization has a team of quants and actuaries figuring out every probability, shifts became a universal defensive strategy, especially as singles hitting and taking pitches to the opposite field have become something lying between an anachronism and a lost art.

In 2023, infielders will have to have both feet on the infield dirt, and two infielders will have to be on each side of second base, and this is only a good thing. It should lead to more base hits and balls in play, as well as more highlight-reel defensive plays, as defenders will be forced to improve their range and make athletic plays to get batters and runners out. 

The only rule change that no one seems to like is the “ghost runner” on second in extra innings, and rightfully so. 

Why should a player who made the last out in the prior inning be gifted second base and the potential opportunity to score the game-winning run? Why do we want to deprive fans of extra innings, when strategy can become doubly important?

Obviously, the travel implications that come with interleague play, teams only visiting cities once per season, and the importance of getting games completed to have the standings even out are important, and in the grand scheme of the baseball season, having a few games that go deep into the night and potentially get suspended due to the curfew rule becomes more of a problem when playoff races dictate that teams return to a city to make up a rainout or finish off games. 

But since its inception, baseball has largely been a meritocracy. In the minor leagues, there’s an old saying that goes, “If you don’t like it, play better,” that is frequently used in response to the gripes about bus travel, bad food, cheap hotels, living arrangements – you name it. 

If you don’t want games to go deep into the night, if you don’t want to have to go back to Kansas City in September, win the game in nine innings.  

These rules changes, easily the biggest since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973, ultimately will benefit the game, though they will initially change its complexion. 

But the sun will come up tomorrow, and the next day, and warm the weather as spring goes on, and baseball will be played. 

It just might look a little different.

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